Exercising regularly helps improve people’s mental health and manage short-term physical health conditions, a survey found
“Starting 2024 with a resolution to exercise more can have really positive physical and mental health benefits. But we know that starting out can be tough and that it can also be hard to stick with it over time. Mindfulness is an approach that can help us ‘train up’ the psychological strengths we need to exercise and be more in tune with our bodies, as well as make exercising more interesting and help us recognise its benefits." Masha Remskar, doctoral researcher, University of Bath
Three-quarters of people who join a gym find that keeping fit boosts their mental health, research has found.
A survey commissioned by ukactive, an organisation representing fitness operators, found that 78% said that going to the gym had a positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing, while two-thirds (66%) said they found that exercising helps them to sleep better.
More than half (55%) of gym goers said their membership was important in helping them manage a short- or long-term health condition.
“It’s clear that more people are seeing the true value of being active and its role in leading a fulfilling life,” said Huw Edwards, ukactive’s chief executive.
Edwards asked the government to do more to support the fitness industry, as 2.6 million people in Britain are currently unable to work because they are struggling with an illness.
“It’s reassuring to see people getting such crucial benefits from physical activity and more are now seeing fitness and leisure facilities as places in the community that can really help them look after their health and wellbeing,” he said.
Andy Bell, the chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, said: “Physical activity has been shown to benefit our mental health. And people living with a long-term physical health condition are twice as likely to have a mental health difficulty.
“But access to leisure facilities and green spaces isn’t equal, and people with the poorest mental health often have the least access to opportunities for physical activity.”
Meanwhile, a study by the University of Bath has found that life changes that combine physical activity and mindfulness are the most effective at lifting mood and improving health and wellbeing.
The study, published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity, was carried out with support from a non-profit organisation called Medito. It reviewed 35 published trials looking at the impact of physical activity and mindfulness, and found that mindfulness can help to motivate people to start exercising, while overcoming minor pain, discomfort or feelings of failure when exercising gets hard.
Masha Remskar, a psychologist in the university’s health department, said: “Starting 2024 with a resolution to exercise more can have really positive physical and mental health benefits. But we know that starting out can be tough and that it can also be hard to stick with it over time.
“Mindfulness is an approach that can help us ‘train up’ the psychological strengths we need to exercise and be more in tune with our bodies, as well as make exercising more interesting and help us recognise its benefits.
“This may be because becoming more mindful prompts us to think differently about our lifestyle, makes us more accepting and less judgemental of our own shortcomings, which can help to build healthy habits.
“There is a huge potential to use mindfulness to unlock the positive benefits exercise can bring.”
Medito has developed a free mindfulness meditation app, and is collaborating with the University of Bath to help improve people’s mental wellbeing and to help them become more active.
Based on the research findings, the team has created and released the first of two mindfulness audio courses aiming to help people get into the habit of exercise.
Later in 2024, they plan to release a second guide, focused on helping people sustain their exercise habit.
Steven Yorke, co-founder at Medito, said: “Mindfulness mobile apps are a great way to boost our mental wellbeing. Unfortunately, all too often companies put up paywalls, making the benefits of mindfulness inaccessible to some. At Medito, we believe that meditation and mindfulness should be available free of charge, to anyone, forever.”
The Bath researchers are now planning to conduct a larger trial to determine the effectiveness and optimal intervention moments for combining exercise and mindfulness.
Both these studies support previous research showing that exercise can provide a boost to mental health. Despite this, not everyone finds it easy to take up exercise, and a key barrier is the difficulty in getting into, and maintaining, the right frame of mind. Although gyms are often full in January, when people start the year with good intentions, usage tends to tail off in February. The finding from the University of Bath that mindfulness can help motivate people to exercise more is encouraging, and it could be that using mindfulness techniques in this way might be an important way of overcoming the psychological barriers to exercise.